I just finished Aaron W. Hughes’ recent book, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012). In this book, Hughes makes the (not so) radical claim that “we must necessarily be aware of the motivations, methods, and cultural baggage that we bring to our study” (102). Hughes writes, “we must ultimately confront the reality that many of the terms and categories that we are fond of employing are little more than untheorized folk taxa” (103).
[O]ur use of words, especially when it comes to the academic study of religion, is never value-neutral. Rather, there is a tendency to create terms, definitions, and essence that create the type of reality that we want to see. In the case of “Abrahamic religions,” many of the terms employed even today in academic study derive their meanings and potencies from interfaith circles. (116-117)
“Abrahmic religions” and the rather romantic narratives we spin about this construction appear to be designed—at present—to reconcile communities that often see themselves at odds with one another. While “interfaith” objectives might be admirable, the aims of “interfaith” work are not necessarily academic, and the concepts used in such work do not have a clear analytical usefulness. In addition, all too often it turns out that the “past that is appealed to is one that has been retrofitted with the concerns of the present” (121).
It’s an excellent book that deserves to be the book on the subject matter.